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World: Dying Words -- Linguists Express Concern Over Fate Of Endangered Languages (Part 1)

  • Charles Carlson

As many as half of the world's 6,000 languages face extinction in the coming decades if measures are not taken to preserve and maintain them. This was the subject of a recent conference of international linguists in the Czech capital, Prague. Participants learned of new efforts being undertaken to preserve an important part of the world's cultural heritage. In this first of a two-part series, RFE/RL reports on tentative efforts to revive an aboriginal Australian language that hasn't been spoken in three decades.

Prague, 15 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Alf Palmer's native language is Warrangu, an Australian aboriginal language that was once spoken around the city of Townsville in North Queensland. Palmer was the last native speaker of Warrangu. He died in the early 1970s and with him, his language.

Warrangu was the subject of a talk given by Japanese professor Tasaku Tsunoda to an International Congress of Linguists in the Czech capital Prague last month. Tsunoda carried out fieldwork in the Townsville area between 1971 and 1974. During this period he met Alf Palmer, who taught Tsunoda his language.

"I'm the last one to speak Warrangu," Alf Palmer told Tsunoda. "When I die, this language will die. I'll teach you everything I know, so put it down properly."

Professor Tsunoda said his association with Palmer first alerted him to the problem of dying languages. "In retrospect, it was Alf Palmer who taught me the importance of documenting endangered languages. His was perhaps one of the earliest responses to the crisis of language endangerment," he said.

More than a quarter of a century later, a few groups of Australians, including some members of the Warrangu group, started a movement to revive their ancestral languages. Tsunoda was asked to come to Australia and to teach Warrangu to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Alf Palmer. He spent several weeks giving lessons on Warrangu and playing the tapes he had recorded during his meetings with Palmer.

During the lessons, Tsunoda looked around the room and noticed tears in the eyes of Alf Palmer's grandchildren and great-grandchildren. "These tears meant how much their ancestral language means to them, and this in turn shows that these tears are the very reason why we should be engaged in the activities to combat the crisis of language endangerment," he said.

One of Palmer's grandchildren is now hoping that the study of the Warrangu language will be included in the curriculum of the local university. Tsunoda said this is only a dream at this stage.

Other speakers at the Prague conference expressed concern that up to 50 percent of the world's 6,000 languages face the threat of extinction, saying, "This is something humanity cannot afford to let happen."

The conference organizer, professor Ferenc Kiefer of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said: "There are various calculations, but the pessimist would say that only a couple [hundred] of these [languages] will survive. The optimist would say that maybe 2,000, [or] two-thirds, of these languages [would survive] -- and that is a lot."

Other speakers emphasized it is not enough to study endangered languages, they must be documented as well. If documentation is sufficient, this can be used in preparations for actually teaching the language to younger generations, as Tsunoda did.

This is the situation facing Ket, a language spoken in the Russian Federation along the Yenisei river in the Krasnoyarsk region. Only two or three native Ket speakers remain, so it is especially important that scholars go there to record and document the language.

Professor Douglas Whalen, a linguist, is president and founder of the Endangered Language Fund at Yale University. He told RFE/RL: "Languages have been endangered for some years. They have been dying off throughout history, but the rate of dying off seems to have accelerated as much as we can tell. When the Linguistic Society of America was founded in 1925, [early expert] Leonard Bloomfield noted that the American languages in particular were dying at a rapid rate, and felt that this was happening without them being documented very well, in part because of lack of funds and organization."

Realizing the importance of studying and documenting endangered languages, the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies recently established a chair for language documentation and description. The chair is funded by the Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund, which established a fund of 20 million British pounds ($32 million) for work on endangered languages.

Professor Peter Austin, head of the program, listed the program's three main objectives in a conversation with RFE/RL. The first is an academic program to train a new generation of researchers to work on endangered languages. The second will document those languages, while the third will create an international archive.

"The second is a documentation program, which is a series of research grants available to any serious researcher to apply to receive funding to do research on endangered languages around the world; and the third is an endangered-languages archive, and this will be a major international archive of material on languages from all over the world, endangered languages," Austin said.

The preservation of smaller languages is a problem the European Union is continuing to grapple with, and the problem will intensify next year when the EU expands to take on 10 mostly Eastern European new members. Part 2 will look at the EU's efforts to protect some of Europe's mother tongues.